If Your Library Was a Small Business, Would It Still Be Open?

For years, when interviewing candidates for library / information positions, I would ask about their entrepreneurial skills or for examples showing their entrepreneurial tendencies. Some got the question immediately , while others just looked confused. Thinking back, it could have been me, the way I posed the questions. Stereotypically, the term “entrepreneur” doesn’t come up in a typical library job interview. defines an entrepreneur as “a person who organizes and manages any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.” What I was trying to implant into my library were exactly those elements of bold initiative that showed a readiness to take action, creative thinking and willingness to look outside the proverbial box. Today, successful entrepreneurs build niche businesses, and I am suggesting that a library in a law firm can be treated like a small business.

What I now know is I was using the wrong word. David Armamo’s article, Move Over Entrepreneurs, Here Come the Intrapreneurs encapsulates the essence of what I was trying find: the spirit of the intrapreneur. In this fascinating article he says, “Smart organizations will seek out individuals who like to invent, innovate, and want to be on the front lines of change.” If they were directing their own company, they would be called entrepreneurs, but since they work inside someone else’s corporation, they are better described as intrapreneurs, and that’s what I was looking for!

What are the characteristics of entrepreneurs and how can these same characteristics meld with and enhance a librarian’s value to his/her organization? Using’s 25 Common Characteristics of Successful Entrepreneurs, as a skeleton I will then flesh it all out with my commentary following. Today we will cover the first 7 points. The rest will follow in my next column.

1. Do what you enjoy. Plain and simple, if you like your work, if you are happy, it will show. They say a smile in the voice can be heard over the telephone. How to convey that in an email is the challenge, but hopefully you have plenty of human interaction to build those important relationships.

 2. Take what you do seriously. This is one that librarians are good at, maybe too good. We do take our work very seriously, but we also need to be able to laugh at ourselves and our foibles too. Is there a reason for the librarian stereotype and should we be smashing it or using it to our advantage?

3. Plan everything. Planning can cover many levels; day-to-day operations are usually not a problem for librarians. We are good at policies and procedures and are good at being reactive, after all that is what many of us were taught. We do the behind the scenes work, the magic library elf work, that is little understood or appreciated, so that we have everything in place to answer whatever question comes across our desk. However, how many of us engage in strategic planning? Knowing the firm’s strategic plan, where it is going and how it is going to get there, is crucial if the library is going to be active in supporting it. Being proactive is part of that. Every library should have a strategic plan, after having completed a SWOT analysis and determining SMART goals and objectives. If you don’t know these acronyms, get to know them, they should be part of your vocabulary.

4. Manage money wisely. Any responsible librarian is always aware of his/her budget. Numbers and percentages might roll off the tongue, but just knowing the numbers is not enough. Make sure that you are aware of the financial trends that impact your library’s bottom line: If billing back time and disbursement to clients is still a part of your firm culture, make sure you are aware of law society rules and your accounting department procedures. If you are responsible for contract renewals, learn to negotiate, because everyone who is responsible for an online contract needs all of the skills associated with that procedure.

5. Ask for the sale. Closing the deal or asking for the sale is not in our nature. If you do not “actively ask people to buy what you are selling” you may not get the sale. Translated, ask for the work, ask for the research, and proactively sell library services. After all, the great service provided by the library is not always clear to everyone all the time, especially to those lawyers sitting on the Executive Committee. It might have been that way once, but not anymore.
6. Remember it’s all about the customer. WHIT “What’s in it for them” and WHIM “What’s in it for me”, seems to be the trend these days. The lawyers in your firm do not really care about the resources you have provided or the extensive research you did to determine which online service is better and why. But, if you can tell them how that online service will save them time, why that book is the best way to answer the question they have, they will care. Remember, look beyond the legal professionals as the customers of a law firm library : Do you count marketing and administration as customers too? If not, you might find you have missed a potentially important market.

7. Become a shameless self-promoter (without becoming obnoxious). I agree this is a hard one, but if we call it marketing does it sound better? Every year a new batch of potential “customers” start — summer / articling students, new associates, lateral hires. They don’t know you or what your library can do for them. On top of that there is far more mobility among partners these days. I suggest you assume they came from a law firm where they were underserviced and need to have the services a library can supply spelled out. Remember that hearing your message once is not enough, especially if the only time they meet you is when they start. You are competing with lot of other voices for their attention. Ever heard of the “Rule of Seven”?; it might not take exactly seven times but the idea is that your marketing message needs to be heard more than once if it’s going to penetrate. Marketing is an ongoing process, not a one time occurrence. How do they know they can depend upon you if they only see you once?

To be Continued in my next column.


  1. Joan, I believe there is a nexus between successful law libraries and entrepreneurial librarians. When I think of individuals I consider successful law librarians, they have all demonstrated their ability to take calculated risks by either building a useful tool, writing something that raises their personal profile (which is linked to their organizations profile as well), or crafting a new method for delivering service. These risks have not always paid off, but they are an inherent example of entrepreneurialism.

    I hope your next column addresses environments where it is relatively safe for risks to fail and how those organizations foster entrepreneurial employees.

  2. Anonymous (for obvious reasons) Law Librarian

    Joan, may I respectfully disagree ? IMHO, what you describe is an ideal world.

    Generally, attorneys do not let their librarians act as entrepreneurs, not even intrapreneurs. They (the partners) take the big decisions, and the office administrator gives the librarian its budget. The law librarian may at best choose books, negociate online subscriptions, make suggestions on other matters (such as hiring an assistant) and prepare decisions.

    And it’s not about the customers, it’s about diplomacy : in the law firm, some are more important than the others.

  3. Hmmm….Anonymous, I am thinking about what you are saying. Yes, doing significant strategic work takes the backing of senior management or senior partners, and that commitment is often best displayed by budget commitment.

    However, there are often opportunities that initially take someone to recognize them as such and to do the initial legwork getting things started. I am thinking of work such as putting a valuable database together pulling together internal information. Or recognizing that there is a better method for maintaining client files in the firm. Or putting together a valuable collection of resources (most of which the organization is already paying for) in such a way that lawyers/clients will find more value in them, such as collecting feeds and links together on an intranet page. Or constructing a more efficient workflow such that it provides better service at a lower cost for the firm.

    If you start to prove you know how to do things in a better way, and especially do them more effectively for the bottom line, soon you could be the go-to person for future projects when the partners go looking for help on those big decisions. It may not always work out this way, but I have seen examples of this actually work.